In which I revisit historical novels that made a lasting impact on an impressionable teenage girl.
As I related in Part One of this article, I was inspired by my own venture into historical fiction, The Slave, to revisit the authors that nurtured my love of historical fiction: Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Mary Renault. I discovered their books as a sheltered and impressionable teenager and read as many as I could get my hands on. But for each author, there was one particular book that stayed with me, even when I moved on to other writers and other interests.
As part of my research into these writers, I thought I should read that fondly-remembered novel once again and see how well it had stood the test of time, and how my own perception of the book and its author had changed.
These Old Shades (1926) by Georgette Heyer
My own favourite of Georgette Heyer’s books was not actually a Regency Romance, but set in Georgian times: These Old Shades. As a girl, I thought its enigmatic hero and tom-boy heroine were the epitome of romantic. No longer a dewy-eyed teenager, I picked up this book for the first time after some thirty years with trepidation. However, I was much relieved to see that it has stood the test of time. I found These Old Shades to be beautifully written with interesting characters and a well-constructed plot.
One dark night in Paris under the reign of Louis XV, the Duke of Avon is on his way home from a tryst with his mistress when a red-headed urchin runs into him, begging the Duke’s protection from a beating at the hands of his brutal brother. The Duke, known to society as Satanas for his wicked ways, finds the child intriguing and buys him, body and soul, from his brother. The Duke has an ulterior motive for taking on the child, but young Léon is totally devoted to the man he considers his saviour from that moment onwards.
The Duke makes Léon his page, and takes him with him to all his disreputable haunts in Paris, in order to flaunt him under the nose of his life-long enemy, the Comte de Saint-Vire, to whom the child bears an uncanny resemblance. But unbeknown to Léon, the Duke soon discovers his secret, that Léon is actually Léonie. What begins as a plan to avenge the Duke’s own grievance against the Comte becomes a quest for justice for Léonie, and leads to the Duke’s total rehabilitation as he grows to love this captivating young girl.
The characters of Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, and Léonie have no doubt acted as templates for many future novels by Heyer herself and her followers. High born, yet raised as a peasant and having lived in squalid circumstances as a boy for many years, Léonie has reason to be what society would call an original. She is beautiful, of course, with a fiery temper as befits her colouring. She is also brave and passionate and speaks her mind albeit with a tendency towards coarse language. At times she can be simple and naïve, while at others cynical and knowing. And, as a boy at heart, she prefers to wear breeches and loves swordplay, riding and adventure. Who wouldn’t find her captivating?
The Duke is the original mysterious and dangerous alpha male. Tall, handsome and deceptively strong, he minces about in the latest, luxuriant fashions, right down to carrying a chicken skin fan, but can crush a gold snuffbox in his hand. His hazel eyes are cold and his thin lips most often wear a sneer. He glories in his demonic reputation. He can be a dangerous enemy who is willing to wait a lifetime to exact his revenge. Yet his love for Léonie brings about a profound change in him which amazes his friends and family.
In its depiction of characters with some depth, and its fine balance of drama, adventure and comedy, These Old Shades is as readable and enjoyable today as it was when it was written almost a hundred years ago.
Madonna of the Seven Hills (1958) by Jean Plaidy
Of Jean Plaidy’s many books, the ones that remained with me most were her Lucrezia Borgia series, Madonna of the Seven Hills and Light on Lucrezia, published in 1958. As with Georgette Heyer, I put Jean Plaidy aside many years ago, but after rediscovering Heyer with such pleasure, I thought I might try Plaidy again and re-read Madonna of the Seven Hills.
To a sheltered Catholic teenager, the ambitions and amorality of the Borgia pope and his family were shocking and titillating. Even after thirty years I could still recall images of Cesare Borgia murdering his brother from sheer jealousy, of his father, Roderigo Borgia, smoothly transferring his affections from his favourite son to the son he knew had killed him, of Lucrezia Borgia, heavily pregnant from a passionate affair held within convent walls, standing before a panel of cardinals declaring herself virgo intacta in order to obtain a divorce from an inconvenient husband.
Plaidy’s version of Lucrezia Borgia was also a lesson in historiography. In portraying a woman whose name had come down in infamy as the innocent pawn of her father and brother, Plaidy taught me that history is not a set of fixed truths, but a narrative that can be turned and manipulated to the teller’s purposes.
Yet for all that, on taking up the book again in my maturity, I was sorely disappointed and wondered how I could once have read it so avidly. I can only imagine that it was not for the style, but for the content, for those glimpses of sex and passion that appealed so viscerally to an adolescent becoming aware of her own desires. But yet how innocent an age it was, for they are only glimpses, a few passionate words, a post-coital smile, coy references. How different to the blow-by-blow descriptions we expect today.
I struggled to read this book. The only way I could keep at it was by taking it to work with me where I would read anything as a diversion on a long and boring commute.
Plaidy’s style transgresses the one important precept of novel writing. She tells rather than shows. The novel is mainly exposition interspersed with occasional, uninspiring dialogue. We are told everything about the characters’ internal workings, yet they still remain fundamentally unconvincing and their development barely progresses from A to B. The novel’s flaws are evident from the first few pages where long passages float from one subject to another, touch back on the first subject, go elsewhere and then return. In fact, it reads as a first draft in need of tidying up, and furnishes the key to the underlying problem of the novel. Given the author’s output and the amount of research that must have gone into each novel, it is not surprising that they had to be written quickly, with little time for second thoughts.
However, reservations aside, although I might have outgrown her, I have Jean Plaidy to thank for firing my interest in history and for introducing me to a world beyond the convent walls.
The Last of the Wine (1956) by Mary Renault
While Mary Renault’s novel The King Must Die and the Alexandrian trilogy may have had a stronger impact on me, it is the delicacy of the relationship between the young lovers portrayed in The Last of the Wine that remains with me and which I chose to revisit. It says a lot about a book that you feel a terrible sadness as you approach the final pages. It was a sense of loss not only of the characters but for the characters, for The Last of the Wine is a novel about loss, not only of youth and love, but of something much more profound, of honour.
The story is narrated by Alexias and tells of his growth into manhood in Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars. As a boy he meets Sokrates (Renault’s preferred spelling) whose disciple he later becomes, grows up with Plato and Xenophon and, together with his lover, Lysis, serves under Alkibiades. Through the novel we learn about the ins and outs of the wars, but, more importantly, we learn about the lives and beliefs of the Athenians. Speaking through her narrator, Renault enters deep into their world view, taking for granted, as her narrator does, their spiritual beliefs, their lore and their laws.
From the very first chapter we are thrust into a world totally foreign to our own, but portrayed entirely on its own terms.
Alexias is born, small and puny, during a disastrous plague. His father, known as Myron the Beautiful, is on the verge of exposing him to the elements when he learns that his younger brother has died. Alexias’ uncle, on hearing that the boy he is in love with is ill, goes to him, and seeing that the boy is dying, takes hemlock so that they can make the journey together. Myron is distressed that he is not able to retrieve their bodies so as to bury them together. On returning home he sees that his wife has taken to the baby and does not have the heart to take it from her.
A whole world is displayed in this story: a father’s right to condemn a child to death, his relationship with a wife he considers as little more than a child, an acceptance, nay a celebration, of love between men, and in particular an older man for a younger, and the narrator’s respect for his father despite knowing that his father does not value him.
Renault was often criticised for her portrayal of women in her Greek novels, but she is only showing their actual position in Athenian society. Women are bound to the house and the household. Their honour resides in remaining invisible and nameless. Indeed, it is considered disrespectful of a woman to even talk about her. If a woman is seen in public, she is either a slave or a courtesan. Men in their thirties marry teenage girls, girls that they think of as children, that they expect to train as their ideal housekeeper.
It is no wonder that in such a world, men would look to other men for their emotional and sexual relationships. It is such an accepted and normalised part of life that Alexias pities his friend Xenophon because he seems incapable of loving a man. But these relationships are heavily circumscribed. Boys are expected to be courted by older suitors from an early age, but their honour resides in choosing a friend who is honourable and will be a fitting mentor, for this relationship is meant to prepare the boy for manhood. The beautiful, thoughtful and brave Lysis is just such an ideal suitor.
However, their sexual relationship is portrayed in coy, elliptical terms, reflecting, I assume, the narrator’s reticence on these matters, (or is it Renault’s own reticence? After all she was writing in the 1950s), that verge on the frustrating. I was also interested to note that although Alexias and Lysis become friends when Alexias is sixteen, they do not become lovers until he is eighteen. According to Alexias, this restraint is due to Sokrates’ influence, but I wonder how much it was due to Renault’s own twentieth-century sensibilities.
Yet, at the same time, I cannot remember being so frustrated when I first read this so many years ago. Perhaps to a sheltered girl, these hints were enough, for I have a clear memory of the moment they become lovers. And as a romantic teenager, I probably saw that preliminary time of passion and restraint as an expected prelude to a sexual relationship. What is it saying about me, my age and my times that, on this reading, I kept wondering what was taking them so long?
But this story is not only about sexual politics. Mary Renault was writing in a time of political turmoil and this is reflected in The Last of the Wine.
The Athens Alexias is born into is a city of high ideals – a city of beauty, honour, the search for truth and democracy. But through the course of the war, all of these ideals are slowly lost or corrupted. Respect for the law and the person are eroded. The democracy Alexias values is undermined and overturned. The victorious Spartans establish an oligarchic government which turns into a ruthless tyranny. Alexias feels this decay deeply as his own honour is bound up in his city. Disillusioned, he and Lysis leave Athens to join a rebellion against its rulers. The oligarchy is defeated, but the democracy that replaces it sadly promises to become a tyranny of the banal. The novel ends with a foreshadowing of Sokrates’ fate.
The Last of the Wine set a high standard for me in the writing of historical fiction, a standard I might aim for, but despair of ever achieving.
©Pauline Montagna 2021